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Cacao Leadership Lesson

Cacao Leadership Lesson


Hello and good day!

Please take a look at the photo above. That's me in the middle.

We took this picture a while back and I don't look that good anymore.

We have a similar photo in our chocolate shop, and nobody ever guesses that I'm me.

"That's you? Really?" ask customers when I point to myself.

"Yeah, it's me. I promise. I know it's hard to believe," I respond.

I didn't have kids then and I was doing physical labor 11 hours per day, processing cacao in extreme heat. Anyhow, riffing about how time and children steal away some of your good looks isn't the point.

The fellow on the right with his arms spread open is Juan. Juan was one of the smartest people I've ever met. He had an imposing and intimidating personality. At least, that was my opinion.

His intelligence and charisma certainly intimidated me.

I was out in campo running our processing facility during this period. Our first processing facility was destroyed by a huge rice husk fire.

After the fire, Brian didn't go home to see his wife and newborn daughter for several months. He worked grueling 14-16 hour days, seven days a week, to build a new facility before the next cacao harvest.

Most of the community didn't think he'd finish on time and if he didn't, we would have missed a crucial harvest and might have gone out of business.

Brian bucked the odds, and popular opinion, and pulled off a heroic feat.

Because Brian had worked himself into physical and emotional exhaustion, he asked if I could come down and run the new facility while he took a long and well-deserved rest.

I had quit my job a year earlier to join the family business and was doing free-lance accounting work to make ends meet. I told my clients that I was going to Peru to work with cacao.

Most left for new accountants. A few decided to wait for me.

Earning enough money to make ends meet was a problem to deal with when I was back in the States.

I had no management experience whatsoever.

Brian trained me for three days and then took off.

Almost every team member was sweet and supportive and made my job easy, especially when they saw that I wasn't a spoiled gringo.

I earned respect through extremely hard work.

But the wild card was Juan.

He was only willing to submit to the authority of a single human being, my brother Brian.

The cost of that grudging submission was a multitude of screaming matches that nearly came to blows on many occasions.Juan learned that Brian was his equal in intelligence and his superior in persistence and was a worthy person to follow.

He didn't know what to think of me.

You may wonder why we didn't fire Juan, given that he was frequently disruptive.  Juan had a good heart, was a hard worker, and truly cared about the success of our project.

He was beloved by cacao farmers in the community. And being so dang smart, he solved a lot of problems for us.

His pros far outweighed his cons.

Right off the bat, the team asked me to address his tardiness. He showed up thirty to forty minutes late for work every day and he had a real sneaky way about coming in.

He normally worked with the cacao buying team. The buying team has a lot of prep work to do before heading out into the canyon to buy cacao.

They have gear to pack. They have to do diagnostic work on vehicles before heading out., A lot of preparation is required to drive along muddy jungle roads in the rain all day.

Juan used to come in barking orders.

"Hey Oscar, this motorcycle isn't ready yet. Come on now!"

"Omar, we're missing buckets here. Don't worry. I'll get them!"

"Miguel, I'm riding with you. I'll grab your goggles so that you don't forget again."

"Jorge, remember to put oil in bike number four. It was low yesterday."

"We're running late now. Hurry! Hurry!"

It was a good foil.

I didn't realize that he was showing up late. n fact, I thought he was the main guy pushing to get the team out on time. We had twenty-five people working there and I was trying to keep track of everybody.

A couple of weeks after I'd started, late in the day, after Juan had gone home, a group of guys approached me. "We want to start signing in for work every morning," they said.

That seemed strange to me.

"Why would you want to do that? We trust you. You are doing a great job. No need to sign in," I said.

They shot glances at one another, each trying to convince the other to spill the beans. Finally, one found the courage.

"It's Juan. He is late every day and we're tired of it."

"He is?" I asked.

"Yes. With the time sheet, you will see."

In retrospect, I should have pulled Juan aside and talked to him in private. But I was too chicken. I'd heard about his shouting matches with my brother. I could see how assertive he was. I was new and I thought he might hate me if I called him to account.

Instead of being brave and talking to him man to man, come what may, I went along with the timesheet idea. The next morning, I walked around with a clipboard and made everybody sign next to their name.

I looked at my watch and wrote down the time of their signing.

When Juan came in yelling and barking orders, I approached him with the sheet.

His name was the only one without a signature next to it. "You're late," I said.

"Yes," said Juan. We stared at each other.

The whole group watched to see what would happen.

 Juan signed the paper, shook his head, and walked away quietly. No fireworks. He didn't even respect me enough to argue with me. He knew that I had cowered from having a direct conversation.

He showed up on time the next few days and then quit.

When Brian came back, he talked Juan into rejoining the team.

This was a leadership failure on my part.

Juan was to blame too, but I should have handled it differently.

A private and direct conversation is the best way to address performance issues.

Catching Juan off guard publicly was a cop out and not the right thing to do.

It takes courage to tell a person, especially a strong, smart, proud person that they need to do better.

But getting people to do their best is part of leading a team.

You can't be a leader if you're not willing to shoot straight.

And usually, people don't hate you for it.

If you do it right, they'll appreciate that you want to help them improve.

Thank you so much for time today.

I hope that you have a truly blessed day!


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